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Once Upon a Time, 70 Million Years Ago: Mount Lassen National Park, California

Our travel editor Al Auger talks about his trip to Mount Lassen, a volcanic National Park in California that has history dating back millions of years.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): The serene Manzanita Lake in Mount Lassen National Park.

Lindsay and I were sitting outside my bountiful Redding estate enjoying the warming sun and cool Fall breezes. I mentioned I had driven up to Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park the other day for lunch. She sat there for a moment, looking at me with her Lindsay-blue eyes, when she smiled and said: Tomorrow, make a picnic lunch for two and I’ll take you back a million years - maybe more.” I asked where and she just winked and quietly said, “Just do it.”

Truth be told, the physical history of Mt. Lassen goes back over 140 million years. Some 70 million years ago the area now is the Cascade Range was under the intrusion of the Pacific Ocean. As fracturing crustal rock forced out the seaway permitting magma from the under the surface to rise. Starting 30 million years ago the Cascades began a series of volcanic eruptions that continued for 11 or 12 million years. The ensuing ash and lava formed what is now the Western Cascades. The last modern day eruption occurred in 1917.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): The Hat Lake in Mount Lassen National Park.

Lindsay halted our easy-going hike in the middle of a vibrant and thriving wetlands, green was dominate everywhere and the air was filled with sweet bird sounds. Further on the trail was bordered by deep, lush forests, holding soft kudzu-like vegetation at the water’s edge. This is where we stopped for lunch, taking in the sheer magnificence of the life that surrounded us. I was in thrall with the magnificence of the force of nature that enveloped us. If I only knew what awaited us beyond this bucolic scene.

At the end of the trail my rising curiosity was answered as I viewed Bumpus Hell, one of the truly most “hellish” vistas I had ever come across. “look, but don’t touch,’ warned my guide. This weird and wonderful display of Mother Earth’s power turned out to be an iconic example of what we may find in the next world. Lassen Park has a number of such examples spread out over it‘s vast acreage.

What lay before us was a mosaic of boisterous fumaroles (steam and volcanic-gas vents), mud pots that sound like Tito Puente working his drums, violent pools of thrashing boiling water, even the ground was a mass of steam clouds. Elevated Boardwalks protected the sensitive world of brackish, rolling mud and humid, shooting sprays of hot steam. Big Broiler, described as the largest fumarole in the park and the hottest in the world has been measured as high as 322° F (161° C).
Kendall Vanhook Bumpus, a cowboy who worked in the Lassen area in the 1860s, literally stumbled on the area when his foot broke the thin crust above a mud pot and severely scalded his leg. In describing his adventure to friends later he rightly depicted the area as “hell.” The editor of a local newspaper convinced Bumpus to show him what he found for a feature article. This was not a good idea as Bumpus once again broke through the crust resulting in his leg being amputated. Bumpus Hell is well-named.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): The hot Sulfur Springs in Mount Lassen National Park.

As we stood surrounded by the searing heat, the hisses of rising steam and gas-vents, the sound of thumping and bubbling mud sizzling in wait for your misstep, I knew this is Mother Nature without redemption. While Bumpus Hell is her major work of art, Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park is the “Louvre,” if you will, of her satanic art. Dotted around the vast area are a number of hydrothermal activity to be found. These include Little Hot Springs Valley, Pilot Pinnacle, Sulphur Works, Devils Kitchen, Boiling springs Lake, some lesser mud holes and Terminal Geyser. Located in Warner Valley, Terminal Geyser, unlike a true geyser, appears as a geyser due to a steam vent with water running over the top.

So deeply involved in looking over every inch of the engrossing and vital activity going on we barely noted the sun slipping behind the forest. Quickly we returned to the parking area and began our journey home. As we cruised down Highway 44 to Redding, Lindsay leaned over and said, “Tomorrow a place of serenity and musing, my lunch, my car.”

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): A frozen lake during the winter months in Mount Lassen National Park.

Getting There

From Redding, CA: Take Highway 44 approximately 50 miles to the Northwestern Entrance.

From Red Bluff, CA: Take Highway 36 approximately 45 miles east to the Southwest Entrance.

Hours & Seasons: Although Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park is open year-round, many of the facilities are closed as is the Northwestern Entrance during winter months. The Southwest Entrance is open year-round.

The Khom Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center: Open year-round. Check Web site for seasonal hours.

The Loomis Museum: Located at the Northwestern Entrance is open May 27-Oct 31.

Entrance Fees:
Vehicle Pass: $10.00 (Valid for 7 days)
$5 Individual Entry Pass: Person entering park on foot or non-auto transportation or as a non-commercial organized group.

Web site: www.nps.gov/lavo/index.htm
The next day found us at my favorite alfresco lunch spot, Manzanita Lake, laying out the trappings for a touch of gourmet genius. Manzanita Lake is a water-world paradise that offers a scenery of lush greenery framed by jeffrey pines and willows, bountiful flowers of uncountable varieties, rainbow, brown and brook trout and a protected campground. All this overlooked by the dramatic 10,462-feet peak of Mt. Lassen and the spectacular Chaos Crags.

We hardly spoke as we enjoyed our copious feast. Now and then the quiet would be broken by an exclamation of “Look, a woodpecker!,” or a visit from a friendly deer. According to a Lassen ranger sightings along the easy hike around Manzanita Lake can range from woodpeckers, deer, occasionally a shy muskrat or beaver. Here and in the surrounding forest is a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Later, we took a leisurely stroll along the shaded trail bordering the calm, reflective lake. After our trip around the lake we visited the nearby Loomis Museum where we learned of the many Native American groups who made the Mt. Lassen area home in the warm months. Hunters and gathers, the Atsugewi, Yana, Yahi and Maidu tribes, were mainly basket-weavers than potters, leaving behind stone points, knives and metal objects.

There is a “modern” story, though, that brought more light on the native background of Mt. Lassen and the surrounding area. In 1911, a Yahi Indian suddenly turned up in the nearby gold country town of Oroville. He was named Ishi (“man” in Yahi) by a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and had never been in the “white” world before. He was judged to be about 49 years old and was the last survivor his tribe, long thought to be no longer in existence. He lived out his life at the University of California Museum and died 5 years later, considered the last Stone Age survivor in the United States. During his final years he was an priceless source of ethnological information.

Finally, as we closed out our 70 million years at Mt. Lassen we learned the mountain was named after Peter Lassen who pioneered a trail for gold hunters in the 1840s. In the beginning mining, power development, ranching and timber interests all tried to establish a place in Lassen. Luckily, federal protection saved it from heavy logging and finally turned this historical magical land into a national park.

Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park is a huge wonderland, covering 150-square -miles, of a multitude of activities who love nature and its profuse treasures. Just for starters this menu includes 150-miles of hiking trails plus 17-miles of Pacific Crest Trail, 8 campgrounds with 450 sites, fishing and boating sites abound. In winter the snow-laden country-side is a circus of trails and undulating bowls for snowshoeing and cross-country-skiing. For the family, Lassen offers a plethora of summer projects for kids. Junior Ranger programs for kids 7-12 years and their family include ranger-led talks at the Loomis Museum. For kids of all ages is the Chipmunk Club filled with entertaining ideas and projects.

Al Auger is a freelance writer. He lives in Fairfax, Calif.


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